David Hitchcock is a paradox – an alternative energy guy seeped in oil pedigree, living in an oil town. David was born and raised into Phillips Petroleum in Bartlesville, Oklahoma; his family moved to Houston forty odd years ago. He worked for the City of Houston promoting green roofs, electric cars, and hydrogen vehicles; researched alternative transportation at The Rice Center until it folded in 1980’s; then shifted to alternative fuels at the Houston Alternative Research Canter (HARC).
David has the flat affect and weary demeanor of a guy whose battled too many windmills, but the more we conversed, the more animated he became. He’s a true believer that somehow we can have a more positive relationship to oil. Despite $1.50 a gallon gas and no restraints on the carbon dioxide we’re spinning into our atmosphere, David thinks that we can affect real change. “Oil is a useful chemical, but let’s use it for something other than exploding it.”
David’s life has been integrally tied to George Mitchell, the oil, gas and real estate billionaire who developed fracking around the same time he founded HARC. Larger than life Texans often poke their fingers into seemingly disparate pies.
In 1996, under Mitchell’s guidance, David was a key author of Houston Environmental Foresight, which identified nineteen regional environmental issues. “Number one was air-quality, which is exasperated by our refineries. Number two was green space. Climate change was on the list but much lower down. If you read the document today, there won’t be anything new.”
Twenty years later David thinks one thing has changed for the better: how Houston addresses environmental concerns. “Houston has always addressed environmental issues with lawyers.” HARC has shifted the discussion to science as opposed to regulation. Among other strategies, David received funding to identify refining leaks via infrared photography, which led to emission reductions.
Twenty-three years ago David moved from center city to The Woodlands, one of thirteen new town developments in the United States conceived and supported by the federal government in the late 1960s. Located thirty miles north of downtown and developed by George Mitchell, The Woodlands is a collection of villages connected by bucolic parkways and a separate pathway system for non-motorized movement. There is minimal signage and thousands of trees. It’s a pleasant place to bicycle, though with every path and intersection lined with loblolly pines, The Woodlands is confusing for a first time visitor.
David and I met for coffee at the Starbucks at Panther Creek Village Center. Although he told me, “there are 4000 people within walking distance of this center and an elementary school,” that estimate seems a stretch considering The Woodlands’ low-density, automobile focused development.
“Does The Woodlands work? I come here almost every day. This Starbucks is my community center. I see people I know. Thirty percent of our land area is drainage. The density is low. There are animal passages preserved across town. There is an interfaith coalition. Unfortunately, most of the Christian cohort dropped out.
“You can’t say this community is not a success. It is a reflection of the best ideas of its time and place. The community part has failed, yet The Woodlands is more progressive than adjacent communities. The initial town center was a mall. Now, there is a higher density commercial/residential area that reflects current development ideas. Of the thirteen model developments conceived in the 1960s, The Woodlands is the only one that was successfully built.”
The Woodlands represents an ideal from fifty years ago, the epitome of our car culture. It’s bucolic, sprawling and, despite the dedicated pedestrian paths, car-centric. Although David is trying to change the perspective of The Woodlands, “the community is 15% Hispanic and 5% black; we have gay, single, and older people,” the development does not represent a viable cross-section of our citizens. “Realistically speaking, they are all affluent.”
David continues to advocate for alternative transportation even in The Woodlands. He organized likethewoodlands.org and started the bike coalition. He rides his bicycle most everywhere since he retired two years ago. Still I can’t help but wonder if his heart isn’t in a more urban locale. “We are stuck here. It’s hard to leave.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“I see a lot for acceptance of transit, and acceptance of rebuilding bayous, to live downtown. I have a 30-year time horizon. It’s difficult to project 30 years forward. It’s like asking in 1970, what’s a smart phone? But we build our buildings for a long time. When we built The Woodlands Town Center, people asked would it be a success? I said we would know in 50 years.
“Humans can hold to opposing views. We can be optimistic about tomorrow and discouraged at our own prospects at the same time.”